The Slow Web

Fernand Braudel

“Traditional history – history, one might say, one the scale not of man, but of individual men, what Paul Lacombe and François Simiand called l’histoire evenementielle, that is, the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of from that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all it’s antennae quivering.” F Braudel1

Before a recent holiday I came across Hossein Derakhshan’s post on Medium, The Web We Have to Save2. Hossein’s article is a reflection on his perception of the state of the web after six years in an Iranian jail. It discusses the evolution of the web during this time and the loss of what was important to Hossein about the web before his imprisonment. Hossein’s post struck a chord with me. It made me think about how the web had changed since I started working with this rapidly-changing medium and how this change relates to some of the anxieties I have had about the state of the web today3, particularly how these affect me on a personal and physiological level4.

Surprisingly, Hossein’s article also made me think about subjects that I had studied during my PhD in archaeology and not thought about for ten years, subjects that on face value have seemingly no connection with our digital present.

A history of the Mediterranean the Web

In his history of the Mediterranean, originally published in 1949, Fernand Braudel examined this region according to three different rhythms of history: the slow, almost imperceptible pace of geographical time; the history of social structures and institutions; and the history of individuals and events. Part of a movement of French historians known as the Annales School5, Braudel sought to challenge traditional history’s focus on the minutiae of dates, kings and queens, choosing instead to look at the slower patterns and undercurrents which move society and social change.

The Annales School can be seen as an attempt towards the democratisation of history. Away from the traditional histories written about and for the elite. A social history looking at the way history was shaped by and also affected the common man. I studied Braudel as part of my doctoral research on the prehistoric archaeology of Scotland. Like Braudel I had become increasingly disillusioned with archaeology’s focus on the minutiae of individuals and events. Studying a fifteen hundred year period, I felt drawn to the slower narratives offered by Braudel and his contemporaries, focussing on broader material histories rather than being drawn obsessively into the details of our archaeological past.

Despite the seeming irrelevance of a mid-twentieth century scholar’s study on late medieval Europe I have lately started to see a lot of parallels with Braudel’s views on the study of history; the evolution of the web and this evolution as part of a broader history of publication. For Braudel we can relate these three histories to the different paces of publication that the web is situated within.

The evolution of the web must be understood as part of a longer-term history of publication. The foundations for the web were provided by the centuries of printed medium that came before it. However, despite increasingly cheaper means for printing and broader availability of reproduction, the printed medium represents a slow, deep pace of change. Writing is marked by editions, sometimes years between. There is a permanence and inflexibility to this printed form and the route to publication remains limited and costly. The printed form reminds me of Braudel’s geographical histories: what he called the longue durée which concern longer-term trends and slower trajectories of change.

Blogging

In the early 2000s the internet emerged as a solution – or at least an alternative – to the permanence of print. Blogging started as a way of responding to the fixed nature of the printed medium and the barriers and pace of printed publication. Blogging can also be seen as a rise in the democratisation of publication. Access to an audience was no longer tied in to print cycles and editorial. Information and opinion was no longer ‘owned’ and anybody who wanted could have a dialogue through the digital page:

“Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted.” H Derakhshan6

At the core of this democratisation – Hossein writes – was the humble hyperlink. For Hossein the blog wasn’t only about a new, open medium for publication. It was a means for interlinking people, articles, thoughts and opinions. It was part of a broader, open network built on the basic foundations of the internet: a web of interlinked content.

The fast web

In his article, Hossein argues that the web we have to save is under threat by new means of publication and communication, particularly social media as the emerging, dominant means for online dialogue. The emergence of social media like twitter in the late 2000s represents the arrival of ‘micro-blogging’: concise, transient means of communication. On the one-hand these new media represented the logical extension of dialogue and engagement that the blog afforded.

However, at another level it represents something wholly different. Social media represents the emergence of closed networks for publication, walled gardens that control the means for dialogue and the ability to reach beyond these walls.

It also represents a more fleeting form of communication – one that is of the moment, that fades away as quickly as it emerges. This can be seen in stark contrast to the permanence of the printed form. In this sense, social media reminds me of Braudel’s understanding of events, what Braudel described as “the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies”.7

This ephemeral nature is what we are starting to see with this latest state of publication. Within walled gardens links become dead-ends, whether that is through the takeover of URLs through services like bit.ly or twitter’s own t.co, or the death of hosted platforms like Geocities and the data they contain. Furthermore, the increasing AJAX-ification of web platforms means we are losing one of the most enduring features of web publication: the hyperlink. Hashbangs and Javascript-dependence break the very fabric of the medium we are working with, arresting movement between places and articles, providing blind alleys where crossroads once flourished and obscuring paths as soon as they are trodden.

The Like and the responsibility of response

Social media represent perhaps the ultimate in the democratisation of publication but there is a flip-side to these ‘open’ platforms for writing and sharing. The first problem is the power of the like. Writing for many has become a popularity contest where the power of sharing has become as valuable as the power of what is being written.

This can be interpreted as part of the oft-lamented demise of the attention span, writing (and reading) being part of the myriad of things competing for our attention in the constant information-deluge of today. Micro-blogging emphasises short-form over long-form, rapid fire over deliberated. Which brings about the ultimate problem of this ephemeral rhythm of publication: accountability. With everything moving so fast there becomes less and less time to digest and respond. Communication has become of the moment, robbing us of time to collect our thoughts and weigh up our responses. The outcome of this – of which I am as guilty as anyone – is cementing our prejudices and surrounding ourselves with those who validate our assumptions.

Like the historians which the Annales School challenged, this ephemera becomes a densely populated realm we find hard to look outside of. But outside of these moments; these 400×300 images and 140 characters; what endures? How absorbed do we get by these ephemera? And how much does this distract us from stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, the slower rhythms?

I see this in the world of front-end techniques and technology. We become obsessed with tools and methods, very rarely looking at how these relate to the fundamental basics of web standards, accessibility and progressive enhancement. We obsess about a right way to do things as if there was one right way rather than looking at the goal; how things fit into the broader philosophy of what we do on the web and how what we write contributes to us being better at what we do.

Looking back, moving on

Like Braudel I find myself drawn to trying to understand a slower rhythm; a slower web. Let’s continue to engage through social media but step back from the power and attention we grant this ephemera, these “pieces of flotsam I have combed from the historical ocean and chosen to call events8.

I find myself sucked into these events, and lamenting the slower pace of change and the opportunities that presents to observe, digest and reflect.

This is not to say there is no place for the fast web. Twitter and it’s ilk is a fantastic antidote to the increased isolation of working in a digital space. It is a great space to meet people, to solve problems, to share in a collective pursuit; whether that is making websites, following football, political tub-thumping or revelling in the high drama of televised baking contests. Certainly twitter has been my saviour on more than occasion; as a water-cooler, problem-solver and above all, friend.

But, let us write more enduring things. Let us appreciate the history of our situation; and rather than dismissing fading technologies seeing these in terms of how they have contributed to our present. There is no right way. Let us start to write our own histories and appreciate the deep foundations of where these have come from and that other’s have their own histories.

These histories do not belong in a vacuum. Everything we do is shaped by what has come before. We have had these same arguments before and it is not about taking sides. Rather, let us own the spaces we write in and start to own the dialogues we engage in. Comment deliberately and thoughtfully.

Let us make a new rhythm for the web.


1 F Braudel, 1949. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, p21

2 H Derakhshan, 2015 The Web we have to Save

3 C Henley, 2013 The Pastry Box, Tuesday, 13 August 2013

4 C Henley, 2014 Have you tried turning it off and on again?

5 The Annales School

6 H Derakhshan, 2015 The Web we have to Save

7 F Braudel, 1949. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. p901

8 F Braudel, 1949. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. p1243

Comments

Please add your thoughts …

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Taking on board your advice to ‘comment deliberately and thoughtfully’, and within spaces we own, it seemed only right that I should share a few thoughts on my own website.

Deep, meaningful reflection seems to be a rare animal. With all the ‘fast’ web, and fast life culture today people forget that boredom is a valuable commodity if used right. Part of “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Green

Dear Cole
It’s great to be reminded of Braudel, and of some fundamentals. I have still have vol. 1 on my bookshelves as a relic of studying Geography at Cambridge, and being introduced to the Annales School there.
I’m going to agree with you about the need for consideration and dangers of immediacy, on the web and elsewhere.
However, I am going to disagree with the suggestion that the web has provided such a revolution – “an alternative – to the permanence of print.” Apart from being old enough to remember not only BG but also BC and photocopies, Roneo and samizdat, I also still do a bit of history – early modern England. Applying both the longue durée and the history of people who did not write their own history:-
Print was not permanent – it was ephemeral, which is why we have perhaps 20% of the black letter ballads we know to have been available.
Print was available, popular, populist and demotic – circulated round the markets and fairs of the country by chapmen, pasted up in alehouses and read to those who were not literate by those who were. Printed in thousands, read by hundreds of thousands and heard by millions (Spufford, M., Small Books and Pleasant Histories, Popular Fiction and its Readership in seventeenth Century England, Methuen 1981)
Print was immediate – people in the provinces knew what was happening in London, and across the channel in the Low Countries, within days, and they wanted to know.
Print was subversive – for instance the rollickingly abusive Marprelate Tracts printed on mobile presses, staying one step ahead of both the civil and church authorities, while puncturing both and provoking them into sponsored reactions (anything familiar here?). They were read by (or to) everyone from the milkmaid to the Earl of Essex.
Print was responsive – Pamphlets provoked responses, and counter-responses and challenges.
Print created celebrities – my own favourite was John Taylor The Water Poet, a Gloucester man of uncertain origins who became a London waterman. He claimed acquaintance and comparison with the literary giants of the age, self published his own dreadful doggerel, useful lists (portals), pocket bibles (Kindle for the early modern traveler), sponsored publications, and achieved the status of a celebrity for stunts like rowing down the Thames in a paper boat, so that when he turned up in a small village in East Anglia the schoolchildren all knew who he was. He even sponsored his own celebrity events (a challenge to another pamphleteer to what would now be called a poetry slam) and promoted others, like Nicholas Wood, ‘The Great Eater of Kent’.
I won’t attempt to start on the complexity of the relationship between oral and written culture. Like Braudel & Spufford, Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (OUP, 2000) is one of those revelatory books that both provides a structure which holds many disparate facts together. Suffice to say that Robert S. Thomson, “The Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade and Its Influence upon the Transmission of English Folksongs” (unpublished Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1974) demonstrated that about 80% of the classic ‘folk songs’ collected by Cecil Sharp et al originated with black letter ballads.
Enough, just a bit of perspective.
Best regards
Neil Howlett